By Marcello Iaia
KNOX — For more than half a century, Carl Peterson has farmed the craggy Helderberg land his father farmed before him.
He’s reached beyond the horizon, though, to head a regional cooperative and shape federal legislation for farmers.
At 83, he’s being recognized this week for a lifetime of work, as he has been in the past.
Modest about his awards, he has a video he’s never seen labeled, “Agri-Mark celebrates Carl Peterson, April 2007.”
“Someday I’m going to get the whole family together and get a DVD and we’ll look at it, but my children all know what we did, because they were all taking care of the farm,” Peterson said on Thursday.
The video begins with the dairy co-operative’s tall CEO, Paul Johnson, stepping up to a lectern, noting how strange it is to celebrate Peterson’s retirement as chairman without him present.
“When things get tough, farmers look to farmers for their own leadership, and Carl always provided that,” says Johnson.
A large red banner behind him reads, “I’m a farmer, I’m an owner.”
Johnson is then followed by a series of speeches, reminiscences, and one poem — sentiments expressed by anyone in the Albany Marriott banquet room wanting to speak about Carl’s work advocating for the co-op’s more than 1,200 members. Peterson was with his wife, Midge, who had recently undergone surgery.
Farmers from across the state celebrated Peterson’s career again on Wednesday, Dec. 5, when he was presented with the New York Farm Bureau’s Distinguished Service Award at its state annual meeting in Albany. The board of directors’ vote was unanimous.
“Apparently there were people out there who remember some of the things that we did that are long-lasting,” Peterson said on Thursday, sitting across from his wife in their Knox home built by his father in 1935.
Among his contributions noted during the 2007 retirement party, Peterson helped secure a merger with Cabot Creamery, testified in front of congressional committees, and separated the northeastern dairy market with a program to regulate milk prices, which expired at the end of October this year.
The Milk Income Loss Contract would be replaced by a voluntary insurance program in a 2012 farm bill the House of Representatives is struggling to pass.
“Lots of times, I walked away from my own farm when I should have been here,” said Peterson.
Homebody with a far reach
At age 16, Peterson graduated from high school and received a letter from Union College requesting payment if he was going to enroll. The family farm would have to be sold.
Peterson chose to help his father on the farm, living with Midge down the road for several years. In 1960, he and another farmer in Berne produced the first load of milk from the area to be sold in the New England market for which he would later influence federal policy.
“My father decided he wanted to retire and get out of it and he sold me the farmland,” said Peterson. “That was 1961 and I’ve been here ever since. So I never went very far.”
He did go far serving on committees and boards in numerous layers of agricultural bureaucracy, starting with the New York Farm Bureau as a farm creditor and on the Albany County extension service board.
Peterson was a member of the New England Milk Producers Association through its mergers with other co-operatives, until it became Agri-mark in 1980.
That summer, Peterson received a call asking him to run for a director seat for his region.
Starting “greener than heck” as director of a new cooperative, Peterson served for years, eventually becoming treasurer, then vice chair, until, in 1992, the opportunity to merge with a small Vermont co-op arose.
Cabot Creamery had achieved an international reputation for its cheese, but had increased its debt in the process.
The Agri-mark chairman at the time was opposed to a merger, but he did not have the board’s support. Many co-op members saw it as a bailout, Johnson said at the retirement celebration. The red banner behind him displayed the logos of Cabot, Agri-mark, and McCadam Cheese, which was acquired by Agri-mark during Peterson’s time.
“He [the chairman] went home that night and resigned,” said Peterson. “They called me up the next morning and told me, ‘You’re the chairman.’”
Peterson negotiated the merger with Cabot, which secured the futures of both co-ops and improved member earnings. He said it was one of the greatest things Agri-mark did in his 14 years as chairman, possibly saving it from a merger with a national co-op.
The Milk Income Loss Contract was originally conceived in the Northeastern Dairy Compact. As co-chair on the Northeast Interstate Compact Committee, Peterson helped develop the agreement among six New England states to separate and regulate their market, providing a government safety net for milk prices and regional identity.
The expiration of MILC this year means dairy farmers no longer receive government checks, while prices of fuel and corn are increasing.
“From what I’m reading in the papers, cheese prices have been dropping dramatically in the last two weeks, and, if that continues, farmers are going to be really hurting very soon,” said Peterson.
Agri-mark was a pioneer, Peterson said, in using whey, a byproduct of cheese-making, to create milk protein concentrate.
Before, farmers were paid, under federal Environmental Protection Agency guidelines, to dispose of whey by spreading it over their fields. Now milk protein concentrate is a valuable ingredient used in energy drinks and protein bars.
“I can’t take all the credit for it, but, having the support of 1,200 farmers that are behind this thing, and hiring a staff that can do this stuff, with a farmer board of directors to guide them, this is the type of thing that you do,” said Peterson.
It has been six years since Peterson stepped down from Agri-mark. He still works on his farm with Jason Peterson, one of his nine grandchildren.
“At one point there were almost 500 dairy farms in Albany County, and we’re down now to less than 20,” said Peterson. “So we were one of, you might say, the survivors — up until the point the snowstorm put us out of business.”
Peterson was indoors, recovering from a hip replacement in February 2010, while men were shoveling the snow off the roof of his barn. It collapsed and his grandchildren decided the insurance money was not enough to rebuild.
Without proper storage and high corn prices, the farm now sells its corn and hay. Most of the remaining 25 Holsteins will be sold in the spring.
“I’ve always enjoyed working with the animals,” said Peterson. “They get attached to you just like a dog or a cat.”
There are other awards and plaques Peterson has been given since he started as a young farmer, but he was not sure where they were on Thursday. While they flatter him, he is more interested in the endeavor.
“You stop and think about 1,200 farmers, and each one of them is a family,” Peterson said, describing Agri-mark members. “Do you know how many people whose lives depend? And I always approached the job that way. You were given the responsibility to represent the marketing of their milk and the atmosphere in which they operate their farm. And you’d better take it seriously, because there’s plenty of work to do.”